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Will corporate leaders taking a stand on guns have a contagious effect?

As public demand for action on gun control gains traction in the wake of the Florida school shooting, companies such as Delta Air Lines and Walmart are taking steps to distance themselves from the NRA. Hari Sreenivasan is joined by Nancy Koehn of the Harvard Business School to discuss what is triggering corporate America to engage in the gun debate and whether this can lead to change.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This may be relatively uncharted territory when it comes to guns and ammunition, but there’s a history of corporate America taking actions on other divisive issues, with mixed results.

    Nancy Koehn tracks these kind of corporate actions and is watching the developments this week. She’s a business historian at the Harvard Business School.

    So, sadly, there have been several mass shootings that companies could have taken a stand on. What’s different now?

  • Nancy Koehn:

    I think we have reached some kind of tipping point, Hari, in terms of public opinion, public demand for action, a sense that a line has been crossed and something has to be done that’s distinguished this moment from other moments after great tragedies in these mass shootings.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How much risk is it that these companies are facing? Are they doing sort of economic calculations, saying, OK, well, this is all the possible customers who are NRA members that I might upset, but then there are more gun owners who are not NRA members and there’s more people who don’t own guns?

  • Nancy Koehn:

    There is always an important element of calculation and making smart bets and thinking about alternative scenarios to any act of governance, anything a serious leader does.

    So I think that’s a part of this, but I don’t think that’s the entire story. I don’t think most of these companies, these men and women at the top of companies are thinking, I need to get the NRA.

    I think this is about, we need to change the rules of engagement, and we need to pressure the most important representative group for gun owners into leading for responsible gun safety. I think this is about, how do we begin some kind of chain of action that makes a positive difference?

    So the piece here is partly about calculation. It’s partly about what will my employees and my investors, my communities, my consumers think. And then there is a piece of it that’s simply about men and women who lead wanting to take constructive action in something that they do every day, which is to try to move organizations toward a desired end.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Well, you also have the situation of kind of a backlash in the case of Delta Air Lines in Georgia and the tax breaks that they could have gotten.

    This is a consequence of them taking a position.

  • Nancy Koehn:

    Yes, it most certainly is.

    And I suspect that Delta will not be the only large corporation that suffers some kind of backlash or negative consequences of that company taking a stand on this issue. But, again, you know, governance is all about tradeoffs and reaction in the face or toward the end of something more positive.

    So, I think all the companies that have decided to wade in this — and you noticed that Dick’s Sporting Goods says no more assault rifles sold and we’re going to raising the age for gun owners. Wal-Mart follows within 24 hours.

    So, there’s also this important aspect of leaders looking at other leaders and saying, well, he did it or she did it. They’re willing to take the heat, I’m willing to take the heat, not only for my organization, but a piece of this is always also about the leader’s moral compass.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Finally, put this in sort of historical perspective for us. On the one hand, how long do consumers remember why is it is that they’re boycotting something?

    And, on the other hand, you look at something like divestment from South Africa that was a slow build, but it did lead to change.

  • Nancy Koehn:

    Absolutely.

    So, I think it’s — this is one of these both/and answers, that we typically have seen that consumers, right, boycott or retaliate against a brand, and then come back to it or have short attention spans.

    But we have seen that, over time, this kind of action on the part, not only of consumers, but of activists and employees, investors, bankers investigating of how their portfolios are allocated vis-a-vis gun manufacturers, all that action is in a sense unorchestrated, but it’s of a part.

    And that part, history suggests, makes a difference over time, not in one fell swoop, but, over time, great changes have happened from this kind of unorchestrated, but — and unorthodox action, with business playing a role.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, Nancy Koehn of Harvard Business School, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Nancy Koehn:

    Thank you for having me.

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